From the Magazine: The Hidden Spirituality of Teach For America

A throwback from the first issue! Ethan Richardson’s long-form treatise on the promise and perils […]

Mockingbird / 8.21.14

A throwback from the first issue! Ethan Richardson’s long-form treatise on the promise and perils of America’s great education reform movement.

And let this be a reminder: the first issue is on sale on the magazine webpage for $10. And we’re not far from the release of the Fall Relationships Issue. Click here to subscribe.

studentMy two-year career as a teacher began much as my Evangelical education did—in a single summer in the Arizona desert, far and away from where my training would be put to use. Teach For America placed me in the Greater New Orleans region to teach middle school English, but my summer training was split between the Arizona State University dorms and a brand new archipelago of a middle school 30 minutes outside Phoenix. The school was a desert pearl—replete with a 400-seat theater, a kind of skybox computer library, and a panoramic cafeteria. It was the middle of the desert, and it didn’t matter. We had Smart Boards and document cameras to play with, entire rooms filled with teacher supplies and curricula. I was blown away by the splendor: this, then, is how it happens. This is the movement that changes it all.

This was Summer Institute, the summer program designed to train, prepare, and develop new Teach for America recruits before their first year in the classroom. It is often described as “rigorous” and “intensive.” “Teacher boot camp,” some say. New CMs (or corps members, as we are called—“I’m Ethan, a 2009 New Orleans CM”) spend several weeks on very little sleep—sometimes none at all—to do a frenzy of teacher prep, from classes taken to classes taught, from meetings and observations, to late-night lesson planning in the depths of a dorm basement computer lab. Many CMs would say it’s meant to break you, that it will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. It would be a mistake to say, though, that Institute’s objective is purely centered on hard work and instructional strategy—it is also, just as much, about inspiring.

As hard as it is to sleep so little, the whole experience is also meant to be invigorating. Imagine it. You, a recent college grad, put on a suit or a blouse and march out of your dorm; you eat a delicious buffet breakfast while televisions around you remind you of your “action items” for the day. You walk out to buses ready to take you to your placement school. Before you reach them, though, you are greeted on the way by a blast of ‘90s-era Jock Jams. A rosy TFA summer staffer tosses you a TFA Nalgene, asks you what you want for lunch. You give him your lunch order, you walk with your corps as a battle convoy, a banner above your head, your credo: “One Day, All Children…”

And then there are the stories you hear at Institute. TFA loves to “dive deep” into what really matters. I remember a particularly deep Dive Deep with my Corps Member Advisor (CMA) group. The kids had finished classes for the day, we had just finished Teacher Role-Play, and now we sat in a circle on the carpeted floor outside a classroom door. We spoke together, the six of us, in hushed tones. The question on the white board for us to dive deep on was, What Brought You Here? Jaime the Advisor went first (for the record, all the names here have been changed), telling the story of one of her first students, Victor, who had spoken no English when she “got him,” had been drawn into gang life by his elder cousins, but had passed the state benchmarks in fourth grade due to “just a relentless pursuit” of his potential. That was why she was here, and who she was here for, to help new teachers reach the Victors of America.

Jaime’s story brought on the tissues and lots of similar stories. One recent college graduate mentioned a homeless advocacy group that “made a serious advocate out of her.” She mentioned the hours upon hours spent with “the Victors” of her hometown Spokane. Another guy very earnestly divulged his “heart”for the unfortunate, citing his university thesis on the achievement gap. We all came back to “kids like Victor” and we all really, seriously cried. I had no idea what I was going to say, but suddenly I mentioned having been a summer youth minister and wanting to really “just love” kids. I, too, mentioned Victor as if he had become a seventh person in our group—I didn’t even sound like myself. It was like a religious moment centered around this kid we’d never met but felt we’d always really wanted to help. Prisha said what we all had wanted to say: “I dunno. I guess I just felt that pull, you know? To really own this—to really take part in something bigger than me, something path-changing for me and the Victors of the world. Like, it’s time to use what I have been given, to do something transformational, you know?” Itwas a calling to something, to a new and better life that we had all felt and experienced at one point.

As for me, I did know what Prisha meant. That call was certainly calling me there, too, and that word, “transformational,” that was a word I had heard before, though in a completely different world, at a completely different time. It didn’t hit me then, but it’s hit me since, and I remember that it came from a similar kind of circle time, only then I was talking about Jesus and the kind of life He was calling me to live. We had called those meetings “Discipleship” meetings, but they just as easily could have been called Dive Deep. We certainly said things like “dive deep,” or “be intentional,” or “path-changing” or “transformational.” Either way, that memory helped explain why, at that moment on the carpet in Institute, I began to feel a small pang of skepticism about the whole “movement,” and why that pang grew as my career in Teach For America went on. The near-mythical emotional pitch of such movement-talk was digging at old scar tissue, old memories that told me that if this was anything like last time, it was not to be trusted. It was bait, and I would have to be on the lookout for the switch.

Teach For America is easy to talk bad about nowadays. There are tens of thousands of alumni, and therefore just as many testimonies—good and bad—for why it has or hasn’t done what it envisions. If you don’t know much about the program, its mission statement is as impressive as it is ambitious: it hopes to “eliminate educational inequity in America” by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach. A corps of America’s elite—mostly young, mostly fresh out of college—is distributed among nearly fifty different high-need American regions to teach in their public schools. They commit to two years in that region—be it San Francisco’s Bay Area or the Mississippi Delta—and they work beside traditional teachers from within that area’s public teaching pool to try and make a significant impact.

According to Teach For America, the impact is happening. Their web page plainly shows the growth of students in New Orleans, where I taught, in the lastten years they’ve been present there. In ten years, students have scored 25% higher on state tests than they had before. Similar stories can be shared about New York City, Houston, the Twin Cities, even Appalachia. When I was in New Orleans, 399 other corps members were going there with me. 400 more went there this year. As of right now, 1 in every 5 students in New Orleans has a TFA teacher.

But that’s just the start of the Teach For America vision. On top of the change happening in the classroom, TFA hopes to “cultivate a lifetime of leadership” in its corps members, pushing them to grapple with these inequities for the rest of their lives. This, too, can be seen in the numbers. In the Greater New Orleans region alone, 78% of the alumni are still working in the education sector, nearly 1,000 of them still live in New Orleans, and 32 of them are now school leaders. New Orleans—as it was when I was there—is the fastest growing poster child for education reform, what many in Teach For America call “today’s civil rights movement.”

These clean stat lines are not without their caveats, though, and there are plenty of fact-checkers out there investigating TFA’s heroic feats. See for yourself. Simply add any negative adjective after a TFA Google search (i.e. “TFA dishonest” or “TFA fraudulent”) and you’ll understand what I mean. Or just search “Gary Rubenstein.”

There are also critiques coming from advocates of the “traditional” teachers at these public schools. In an Atlantic essay called “I Quit Teach For America,” Olivia Blanchard describes how she felt as a CM in a school of non-TFA teachers: “it didn’t take long to discover that TFA’s five-week training model was a source of resentment for these teachers. Not only were we youngsters going into “rough” schools with the stated goal of changing what they had not been able to, but we had done this with only half a summer’s worth of preparation. I began to understand why my TFA status instantly communicated to other teachers that I found myself superior.” Many alumni with similar experiences (even experiences in similar programs, like the Peace Corps) also describe this subtext of condescension in the TFA mission: We have come to fix what you could not do yourselves.

The truth is, the guns are out on Teach For America’s effectiveness, and perhaps justifiably so. I can certainly tell you there were some square peg/round hole moments during my tenure, especially during things like Data Reflection Meetings. But I’m not very interested in data witch-hunts. No doubt, there is a certain pleasure (and privileged safety) in climbing aboard a well-steamed critique train, but that’s not really my beef. I don’t have the numbers to give an alternative, and I don’t really want to go where that train is headed. For all I know, TFA is doing the best it can, and I’m happy to leave the number-crunching to the number-crunchers.

But jargon like “transformational” hasn’t left me alone. Two years out of my commitment, what’s stuck with me most—more than kids’ names, the 5 a.m. alarm going off, the lesson planning and observations—are phrases like that, the quasi-spiritual mantras we began to repeat as a unit, to fend off doubt with some kind of active, verbal faith. Sitting there in that circle with Prisha and Team Victor, we were learning to use certain words, emotional tools, to believe that this was our movement, and that we were chosen.

The Deliverables

The summer before my senior year of high school I worked at a half-finished Evangelical camp in the high desert of Arizona, near Flagstaff. By half-finished I mean they had the camp buildings, but none of the extra stuff—no giant zipline pond, no Blob, no mountain bikes, no rock wall. Instead, they just had these immaculate dining halls and cabins, and an empty, rocky pit of a field, waiting to be filled with water. And Frisbee golf. It was funny working at a half-finished camp, especially a half-finished Evangelical camp, because it seemed to me that one of the ways in which you won kids over was by having cool stuff for them to do.

The reason I felt that way was because that was the way I had been won over. Just two years before, I was a camper at one of these camps, with the in-crowd from my high school. I had jumped off mountains with them and walked frightening ropes courses with them and gone through terrifying midnight obstacle courses with them. I had a “mountaintop experience,” as they call it, except mine was not a figure of speech. I literally hiked up to the top of a mountain one day, and threw a rock (symbolizing sin) into the Continental Divide. We also went into the wilderness by ourselves and sat for several minutes, alone, and wondered on God, and His Son, and the Cross. We were asked to ponder what it could mean if we accepted a new reality, that God, the Maker of “all this”—the stars, the mountains, the fun—wanted us more than any of that. A relationship, a friendship with us.

Seeing what was around me, all the love and generosity I had received all week, all the athletic friends and pretty girls, God and Christ seemed like the guys I needed to have around. It felt like the start to something new. This, to the ninth grader I was, felt like real life, life as it was meant—full of surprises and attractiveness and heartfelt conversation—a removal of all the unnecessaries and a heightening of the things that mattered. I remember thinking, “This is the life I want to feel forever.” I prayed that God would help it never change.

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Camp was the beginning of my life as a committed Christian, and continued to be for me a kind of spiritual reference point. If you know about Evangelicalism at all, or “parachurch ministries” that put on camps like these, this will make some sense to you. At least with the people I’ve seen embracing this message (including myself), camps and mountaintops are a vision of purpose, a new barometer of possibility for one’s own life, to be carried down from the mountain and into your everyday. In realizing God’s impossible love for you, the beauty of His splendor, the specificity of His purpose, you are given a rapturous sense of the fruit He yearns to deliver to your life. As anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann observes in her study of American Evangelicalism, When God Talks Back, the movement seems suited for those who primarily yearn for this newness of life:

People who decide to go to church because they want “more” want what the church tells them they get if they come to Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22-23). Those are the deliverables, the bottom line, the rewards that have value even if all the supernatural stuff turns out to be wrong…

The term is slippery, and capital-E Evangelical is not the same thing as evangelical. While the word itself comes from the Greek word for “good news” (evangelion), the capital-E variety makes some people turn green, and that’s what most people think about when they hear it. Your run-of-the-mill grocery store shopper is quicker to think of an America-juiced NRA chairman or a parking lot full of gas-guzzling Tahoes than Jesus Christ or the forgiveness of sins. But the term certainly isn’t limited to political conservatives and backwoods bowhunters.

No, Evangelicals are crazy about the Good News, the love of God. Characteristically, they are big on God’s emotional personhood, His genuine understanding of not just humankind’s problems, but your problems—your specific emotional injuries and frailties. Evangelicals are big criers and big sharers. They often cry in worship services, they often talk about what’s “on their heart” lately, or what God is “doing” in their hearts. They also tend to put value, quite genuinely, in serving the poor and needy. They give a lot of money away. They go on mission trips and adopt kids. They move into poorer neighborhoods to serve there. They talk a lot about “living intentionally.”

The exciting part for me was joining this movement of life-livers. At camp I had realized that I was being invited into a relationship with God that would change my life forever, that would make me better. Suddenly the Bible sparked with secret messages just for me; a phrase like “I can do anything through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4.13) was written in my ballcap. I rehearsed in my head, “The old has gone; the new has come!” (2 Cor 5.17) as if it were about my life—I was that way, now I am a new way. This was such a good invitation to receive—to not just feel the love of God, but for the love of God to make me a new kind of life, to do mountaintop-like things in my life. “Do not deceive yourselves by just listening, silly goose…put it into practice!” (James 1.22)

Which brings me back to the half-finished camp in Arizona. During my summer there I was given the worst job, called “The Pits,” which I stupidly volunteered for (“…in humility consider others better than yourselves”—Phil 2.3). In The Pits you wash camper dishes and caked casserole pans for ten hours a day. As soon as the breakfast dishes were cleaned and reset, the lunch rush started up. While other staffers picked up the grounds or swept floors, we were covered in cold food grime most of the day, and campers left vivid ketchup pictures of human anatomy on their plates for us to clean.

I loved it. We listened to Christian songs, whole CDs over and over: “I’m diving in, I’m going deep, in over my head I want to be caught in the rush / …The river’s deep, the river’s wide, the river’s water is alive / So sink or swim, I’m diving in! (I’m diving in!)” We put weird stuff through the industrial Hobart, like our shoes or our roommate’s dopp kit—just being crazy guys, you know—and one of us even went through the Hobart himself, naked, and became immortalized as the Baptized One.

For sure, the ecstasy of doing something so gross came from the satisfaction of being humbled, of serving others. We often said to campers how grateful we were to “just be here and serve.” We were encouraged by our bosses in the early morning before the campers awoke, that we were “being Christ” to these young people, who really were the exact same age as us. This job description—Christ—gave us both the quiet thrill of being on the inside of a secret op, and the even more rewarding feeling that Christ was very, very close to the work we were doing. In fact, Christ was the work we were doing. And I would bet that was why we had all come back to camp, and a half-finished camp at that: to feel again the wondrous closeness of the God at camp, the God who transforms old things into new things. We were hoping our summer in the desert would bring some of that transformation back with us.

Just a Bunch of Normal Guys

My buddies tell me that I should have waited

They say I’m missing a whole world of fun

But I still love them and I sing with pride

I like the Christian life – The Louvin Brothers

Before Institute, “Round Zero” is what they call the first introduction to Teach For America, where CMs are given a taste for the organization and their new city. So our corps stayed in the heart of New Orleans for a week, at dorms in Tulane University. It was a chance for us to get to know each other, and a chance for us to begin to fall in love with the city that would be ours for the next two years.

In the dining hall line one morning I met Jenna, a squeaky kitten-looking recruit who had just finished two years in a high-power consulting firm in Chicago. Let’s just say that while she might have been kitten-looking, she was not kitten-like. After telling me about her two years there, and the doctoral business candidacy she had passed on at Georgetown, I asked her what had compelled the decision to do TFA. She forked some pineapple rounds and looked up in surprise, as if I should have known the answer. “Well, I’d say anyone in my shoes is here to purge the corporate stain, am I right?”

Later on that week, at an organized social outing to Bourbon Cowboy in the French Quarter, I noticed this same Jenna go up on the mechanical bull. In a bar of what must have been a thousand people, Jenna’s rodeo skills were formidable—if not corporately purged yet, she was certainly well on her way. At the bar, TFA alums and older CMs were there to “connect” with us about their experiences at their schools. We were there to try to get jobs at their schools. And we could all take fireball shots.

TFA hosted all sorts of things like this throughout my stint, to instill our love for the Big Easy. When I was accepted into the corps, I received a bumper sticker in my acceptance envelope which said, “New Orleans: Still My Home.” While living there, we bragged local knowledge as our own. We knew what nights you could see Kermit Ruffins play at Vaughan’s. We bristled with the locals about all the tourists asking to stay with us during Mardi Gras. CMs who used to listen to country suddenly got into a particular strain of local hip-hop called “Bounce.” Food-oriented occasions were the best: we suddenly had this lifelong love for crawfish boils or shrimp etouffee or po’ boys. Like native sons and daughters, we invaded New Orleans with night-vision and civilian fatigues, an undetectable vanguard. We learned to live in the city as if we had always been there.

Of course that didn’t change the fact that we were detectable. Every time you heard a group of us smartly 20-somethings around town, talking about going to the next professional development, or changing our voter registrations, you knew we weren’t slinging drinks at BJs. Authenticity is a hard game to get into, but there’s one thing the “real” locals don’t do, and that’s talk about the stuff they’ve been doing all their lives. Regardless, that’s what we did.

This authenticity-credibility was apparent from the get-go. It was a way to say “I’m not just a Teacher”—I’m normal, too—here, let me show you how. You might call it a performance, sure, and it may not be your slice of cultural pie, but it was refreshing. And in doing so, you saw the everydayness of a person, just like you and me and all of us, who also just-so-happenedto be paying attention to a very crucial mission. It invited the innocent bystander at the bar to see for himself or herself the Movement we all ought to have been paying attention to: an achievement gap in our city, or the purpose-driven life we’re all called to live.

And for a new initiate in this movement, a young college-grad teacher, it was an enticing thought. You began to see how your individuality might find a home in this mission. “I can be transformational, and still be me, here.”

This law of authenticity in the individuals is just as true in the organization. Teach For America is often self-effacing about its corporate cool (if that’s not already an oxymoron), and I’d be in denial not to say that one of the attractive components of TFA is its professional sex appeal. Your résumé becomes special: you are imputed with the sexy qualities of a well-respected, progressive social justice movement. A TFA CM gets nods from both Gandhi and Bloomberg, it seems. But on top of that, it’s the sheer aesthete in you that feels fulfilled: the clean masthead on curricula and training programs, the slick names for schedules and meetings (“This is the ODC: the Observation Debrief Cycle”). Everything is streamlined and of its kind. It even has its own font.

It’s odd to think that Evangelical churches and ministries are no different. Some of the trendiest graphic design you’ll see comes from worship powerpoints. At the camps where I went as a kid—I went to four of them—you will not only find unsurpassed real estate but a branded experience. There is a seamless language spoken in the way bunk beds are aligned, the way Large Group is gathered, the way food is served. All of it works to create a unified “aspirational” environment—you know this is not the life you currently live, but you feel invited (and challenged) to be better because of it.

When it’s not guilt inducing, there’s something pleasantly addictive to it. It’s like hearing from a couple you like (and kind of envy) that they’ve just tried Paleo for a week and loved it. They feel so much better—they are having energetic sex and they’ve never felt so “with it” throughout the day. You can’t imagine they ever had bad sex, but suddenly, having never thought about going Paleo before—or what kind of sacrifice that entails—you are struck with inspiration. This is something I could do, right?

And there’s something coercive about this cool, is there not? No, I don’t mean in the Luddite sense or the fashion-hating sense. I like pretty logos and picture filters as much as the next guy—probably more. Lord knows I’d pay a hefty sum for someone to streamline my aesthetic. But if it’s a movement? What if it’s a movement?

Unforeseen Variables and the God of Backwards Planning

In New Orleans, TFA Headquarters is housed on the historic Lee Circle, the Mardi Gras wheel that mills St. Charles around the Warehouse District and into the heart of the French Quarter. It is Brutalist in design—like five stories of concrete graph paper—which looks Slavic between all the 19th century French double-gallery homes. TFA’s office is huge, with big square windows and an open floor plan. The executive’s offices and meeting rooms themselves are all glass, and people will jot down their thoughts, or words of encouragement, with dry erase markers on the panes—things like,

“No matter what he does, every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn’t know it.” –Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist

I found myself in there for the third time in over two months since Institute, once again for what they were calling an Interviewing and Résumé Workshop, because I still had not been hired by a school. It was now nearing October—my first school year was now in full tow—and I had no school, and no students. Instead I sat down with a video camera and a TFA Regional Advisor and did a pretend interview with a pretend principal. Though this was really just a “chance to CIE” (Continuously Increase My Effectiveness), I began to worry that these pretend interviews would be the very real way I was booted out of the corps, that, despite there being a job shortage, there would be something discovered in me that gave them reason not to continue my Emergency Pay. I had also noticed the kinds of non-answers that were given when I asked whether or not we were guaranteed jobs. I heard rumors that others in my position were being “relocated” to places like Arkansas or New Jersey. Others were being hired at jails or for GED classes.

All the while, we were being told that, though these were Unforeseen and Challenging Variables, it was an opportunity to rise to the occasion. Instead, I ended up going to bars alone and watching a lot of Top Gear. While this was more space for preparation, for “vision casting,” for setting “action plans,” I kept wondering how I could prepare for a classroom of Unforeseen Variables.

“Backwards Planning” is one of the atomic units of Teach For America’s practical philosophy. It works exactly how it sounds: You start with a vision, or a “Big Goal,” which generally has something to do with the success of your students: Where do you want your students to be, not just at the end of the year, but at the end of their public school education? Their adult lives? The answer to that question goes to the top of your chart, and informs the small goals you need to enact in your classroom starting on day one. In other words, you start at the Ultimate, and you work your way down to the Right Now:

Theodore Will Be A Successful Adult.

Theodore Will Have the Opportunity to Go to College.

Theodore Will Pass His State Standardized Tests.

Theodore Will Score in the 60th Percentile in Math this Year.

Theodore Will Be Able to Subtract Decimals to the Nearest Hundredth.

Theodore Will Be Able to Subtract Decimals to the Nearest Hundredth using Lego Models. [Sub-Objective L.3.4-ii]

Maybe you, like me, don’t think successful adulthood necessarily means a college education, but that’s not the point. The point is that Backwards Planning is a way of making the invisible concrete, the future present. It is the business of bringing ambitious Big Goals into the realms of copy machines and math standards and overhead projectors. As Teach For America says it, it makes the problem “solvable.”

Everything fits into this systematic: Teachers are taught to introduce each lesson with an objective destination—SWBAT (“Students Will Be Able To…”)—to show their students quite literally what skills they will have “mastered” by the end of the lesson. Phrases like “Relentless Pursuit of Results” or “Data-Driven Instruction” aren’t just corporate jingles—they are ways of saying that success is mappable, findable, reachable, and kinks of any kind can easily be tracked back to their source. Teach For America believes in setting High Expectations for this reason too. If you Set a Big Goal, if you Align Your Big Goal with Your Objectives, the students will meet you where you set the bar. If you believe it, and you map it, then you can execute it, no excuses.

Functionally speaking, American Evangelicalism may not be in the business of self-fulfillment, but it certainly invests in the power of Backwards Planning. That experience at camp? That closeness to God you once felt? That wasn’t just then—that is God, that is God now. And because God goes with you, so can that feeling of assurance. The encounter with God’s purpose for your life can, with minute-to-minute precision, add significance to your everyday life; you just have to learn how to do it. Luhrmann describes it, ironically enough, as “mapping back” God’s heart to your own. By remembering God—W.W.J.D.?—God’s will transfers to your own:

“But while the idea of the heart invites people to imagine recognition in terms of a mystic collapse—God’s will becomes my will—what congregants actually do in practice is to think in terms of a mapping back, an attempt to reorganize their interior emotional life by modeling themselves on God or, more precisely, on Christ…the congregants must learn to take their model of God—given content by the individual but also reinterpreted by the understanding of God within the church—and then use that model to reshape their own emotional worlds. This is an awkward task because one cannot just decide to feel Christ-like love, as if deciding what wallpaper to use in the living room…”

“Mapping back” from God’s heart to your own, while not data-driven, is certainly a way to incarnate the abstract. Like Christ himself becoming incarnate, God reshapes your mundane moments into chances for forward progress, and so momentary duties and issues—laundry, gas, silly arguments—pulsate with the electricity of His power. If I remember God, I’m not just getting chicken at the store; God cares about your checkout clerk, God is putting her life on your heart. Little by little, these small things are ushering in the Kingdom. Each moment of each day is an opportunity to see God at work; to remember Him is to bring the fruit of the Lord into the world. Maybe you can’t change the world, but if you remember God, He can. It just takes the mindful practice of faith.

Seeing your life this way also means that God’s goodness is present even in the things that may seem bad. Rough seasons of life are “hard, but good” because you can push yourself to remember God’s presence in these seasons and see beyond the horizon of your current suffering: God is “teaching you,” “stretching you,” “showing you your need for Him.” Of course, on one hand, this is true Christian orthodoxy—think of Christ on the cross, God present in our weakness—this idea that God is your strength in times of need. But when it is used as a way to skirt suffering, a method to plot one’s happy fortune, it becomes a different thing altogether. Mapping back allows you to procure a God’s-eye perspective on any situation, something we all want, at the expense of circumventing (even denying) the ache.

You hear a lot of this language in church-planting missions, too. There are cries to pastors and churches to “be the movement” Christ began in the first century. Success for the church—like a public school for TFA—is not like any other four-walled organization; on the contrary, it is the fertile ground for transforming the world. And for churches the way it happens can be mapped back to Christ’s original vision for it. As one church leader wrote on his blog:

Christianity started as a movement of men and women who were so compelled by the words of Jesus that his words overtook their lives. They dwelled on, lived, spoke, and directed every nuance of their existence by those words…it happened because they believed so strongly in who Jesus was and his command to make disciples of all people that it permeated every facet of their lives. When the “visionary” left, his vision—a world reconciled to the God that created it—did not. That’s a movement!

This certainly was my prayer as I left camp all those times: that God would help the vision remain, that the Christ who returned to his disciples in that dusty upper room and breathed miracles and foreign languages into them, like fire, would somehow do the same for me. And, to be honest, it was answered. As our camp bus was entering my hometown in Kentucky, I was given two books to take home with me: one was a paperback New Testament with a picture of a crew of backpackers on the front, traversing in tandem along the Rockies. The other just said My First 30 Quiet Times. I had no idea what a Quiet Time was, but I assumed it was a way to be like those hikers on the cover of the Bible. Perhaps it was the way I could keep hold of the mountaintop I knew I was leaving.

*   *   *

My day-drinking during The Jobless Period quickly transformed into enthusiasm when I finally landed a job in October. Suddenly the vocabulary of Big Goals and Standards Alignment and High Expectations had an outlet. They weren’t just vocabulary anymore, they were tools, and I worked with gusto to begin making something with them. I made Data Tracker charts for my students, I worked on ways to get them invested in their work, and I planned lessons backwards, looking back to the greater vision I had for my students to be successful human beings. It was rewarding. I was finally getting the chance to put these things to use.

And after waiting for so long to get placed, I really lucked out. My school had been a Katrina survivor and had, by 2009, become a symbol of the city’s post-Katrina renewal project. Where a johnboat had once floated into the playground, the New Orleans Saints donated an athletic field. Alice Waters, the celebrated chef, teamed up with New Orleans native chef Emeril Lagasse to create an Edible Schoolyard and Kitchen. Kids were learning how to grow their own squash, and then learning how to make an Autumn Harvest Soup on Viking ranges. Kids had new school uniforms and teachers had a new vision for how teaching was going to be done. Inspirational banners hung throughout the hallways, phrases like “Be Caring: Live the Charter Way.” It was precisely the kind of school TFA reformers hope for.

As for my first classroom, it looked like the perfect New Orleans backdrop for “Path-Changing Teacher.” I had eight-foot windows with sliding casement panels, the kind you can open up like a trebuchet. You could hear marching bands practicing all over the city from those windows in the afternoon. And it wasn’t just the room—my students, much to my surprise, were coming in silently, uniformed, in line, and beginning their “Do Now” activities as they were supposed to. It was startling. It didn’t last, of course, but this was my first impression: What a beautiful room to change the world in.

Positives and Deltas and the Curtain of Oz

When the school year begins, Teach For America CMs are given what is called a Program Director (PD), who acts as the liaison with the organization as they go through their term. PDs are there for guidance and support, and they are also there to help you with the bureaucratic expectations that come from above. Because the problem is a solvable problem, the PD is there to help you show them how you are solving it, mainly by color-coded Excel spreadsheets. Of course, PDs relay a lot of helpful material; they’re happy to support you with a student who has a disability, with a state standard you don’t know how to teach, or even with copies that need to be made. They have all kinds of ideas, and all kinds of avenues to help you find a solution that works. Still, though, they are also there to monitor your effect on America’s children. Starting with the Big Goal, your PD walks astride your line of progress as both Advocate and Supervisor.

When your PD comes to observe you, he or she brings along the TAL (Teaching as Leadership) Rubric, a grade sheet that helps you see where the missing links are in your instruction. The sheet is graded on the continuum from Pre-Novice to Exemplary. You rarely get a Pre-Novice, which a substitute teacher would get by playing a movie, and a first-year teacher definitely never gets an Exemplary. The rubric is there to make sure you are “Planning Purposefully” (ahem, planning backwards) and “Executing Effectively.” For example, the PD asks him/herself during the observation, “Is Mr. Richardson engaging E-6? Is he ‘evaluating and keeping track of student performance on assessments so that the teacher and students are aware of student progress on academic, behavioral and investment goals’?” Maybe Mr. Richardson attempted to do it, but lost track of it (Novice)? No, Mr. Richardson tried keeping track of test scores, but not behavioral goals, which may explain why Carlos was out of his seat without asking (Beginning Proficiency). There are 30 or so similar rubric questions, and then they’re all compiled.

At the end of class, you sit down for your Observation Debrief, where first you’re asked about what you think you did well (your +s) and what you think you need to change (your Ds). Then your PD tells you what your +s and your Ds really were. There are no negatives, of course, because, again, this isn’t a critique, it’s a chance for the PD to come alongside and “keep a tight pulse” on the things that are going on in your classroom.


It sounds obnoxious, but it was explainable. If you have a vision for things to go a certain way, it’s beneficial to have accountability, something or someone to keep you on the path towards that vision. Like any expedition with a destination, you can’t just take off on your lonesome, funny bunny! You need navigators and maps and experienced sailors to help get you there. Sure, you’re the captain, but you need big red signals for when you’re about to hit the rocks. Knowing so little but trying so hard, I was grateful for the assistance. I had my PD on speed dial; she knew my situation intimately, and was willing to help in any way she knew how. She filled my shelves with curricula I would have never known about before, and in this way I felt like I had a veteran comrade.

But I soon realized that I hated being observed. Despite the cryptic lingo, it felt to me as if it was always a chance for me to learn how all I was doing was still not enough. I might have been pursuing academic success for my students, but I wasn’t quite relentlessly pursuing their success. Not yet, anyway. Every time I sat down with my PD, I felt the strong urge to either stand up in self-defense—telling her about the parent phone calls I had to make last night or the copier malfunction or the planning period I had to relinquish that morning—or run home and chain smoke with a bourbon. My PD always ended on a positive note—a consoling “You’re doing great things in this classroom,” or a hopeful “I can’t wait to see the growth in these kids in the End-of-Year Benchmarks!”—but I could always only hear the reproofs. And because I could only hear the reproofs, it was that much easier to settle instead into resentment.

I often wondered if that made me a nutcase—or a pansy—because who can’t stand to hear criticism? Someone who is not long for this world, that’s who! It was more than just the criticism, though. It was how distant that criticism felt from the inspirational mantras I had learned to make part of my teaching juju. All of a sudden, teaching was being framed in ways that polluted the Movement with all this other stuff. All of a sudden this wasn’t about the Gap, the Victors, the Chosen Teachers, it was about the mechanics of E-6; the CFUs (Checks For Understanding) I wasn’t making use of; the effectiveness of my INM (Introduction to New Material). Sure, it was healthy feedback and I needed it, but it also put this heartfelt enthusiasm into what felt like the cold components of an engineering textbook. It was like the unzipping of Oz’s curtain. The magic had its chest opened, and you could see the cogs and levers that had made it look so natural.

I began to feel what would become the jading of mechanics. It wasn’t that these rubrics and videos and feedback weren’t good—even necessary—it was that they turned my eyes away from what made those mechanics important to begin with. I was spending less time thinking about the Movement and more time placing value judgments on the things that were “being the Movement” in my classroom: like my “teacher voice,” the way I “managed” behavior, how many seconds of learning were lost lining kids up at the door. Somewhere along the line, the Victors got traded out for the banalities of WIDWATW (pronounced “wid-watt-double-u”): What Is Due When and To Whom.

“Own It”

When it came to living life after camp, I soon found that there were more than enough ways to bring the God of the Universe into just about every part of my life. What I thought was done sufficiently just by going to church, opened out to all sorts of ways to really grow: there were prayer meetings, bible studies, discipleship groups, accountability groups, book groups, Christian Athlete groups, youth group and, of course, the Quiet Time. The Quiet Time was a chance to go there alone, an opportunity to read the Bible and feel the Bible’s living power in your life—even in the weird parts about incest and goat slaughter and temple rods. I learned that the Bible was God’s love letter to me, that any passage—seen in the context of Scripture, and in the context of my life—was saying something to me now.

After camp I was devouring the Bible, though more out of interest than out of personal growth. The idea of having a QT was not abnormal—I had always been a journaler, and I loved to read—and it even sounded nice to make that a part of my everyday self-check-in (who couldn’t use a little more peace and quiet in their lives?). But at some point I came to the recognition that this wasn’t necessarily optional, at least not if I wanted to grow in Christ. Like Backwards Planning, this was the proven method in Christian life, and to say “No” to it meant saying “No” to the fact that you were a “new creation.” What confused me about all this, though, was that that promise—that I was a new creation—felt unconditional at camp.

The workbooks and study guides that come prescribed with the Quiet Times don’t improve this doublethink. On top of the readings and memorization of verses (to which your Accountability Partner is holding you) you answer questions in your notebook: Where are you in this story? Is there a promise here to claim? Is there sin to avoid? A lesson to learn? What is God speaking to your heart right now? The answers are before your eyes, findable in the passage, and the act of writing them down is the same as inscribing them upon your heart. When David slays Goliath, you remember that you are called to stake claim on that same kind of wild, bold faith that stands before an impossible situation—your Goliath—anger, sex, parties—and engages in the battle with the Lord’s courage.

It’s not ridiculous. Who doesn’t want their most pressing life problems to be this workbook-solvable? We all do, just look at our self-help obsessions! And so, finding yourself feeling deeply insecure, worried those Camp Vibes were all just a hoax, it is a deep comfort to think all you really need to remember is that you are not insecure. Beanie Weanie, your security comes from God! Repeat that. Own it. Wipe those tears away in the knowledge of it. And stake your claim on what’s true! These vibes are forever!

Well, God is certainly forever, but our camp vibes aren’t. We still do feel insecure, all the time even. And so on top of feeling shamed for feeling insecure to begin with—and thus feeling less and less likely to ever talk about it again during your circle time—it’s also easy to figure that the impression you got at camp was the wrong impression. Or at least that you had only gotten the half of it. For me, it was confusing to hold these two conceptions in tandem—the God of Food Fights or Puppy Love, and the God of Personal Growth and Transformation. I was never really told to be like Jesus at camp—I was told he was there for me, like a friend waiting patiently for you to get out of detention. Now I seemed to hear a sigh in his wait, like a disappointed coach, “You ought to know by now. Enough’s enough.” Granted, all the personal growth stuff was framed in the effort to “get back” to His Love. I understood that. I wanted that, too, but at camp it didn’t ever seem to be contingent on me at all.

Also, it just never seemed to work, these disciplines of re-assurance. Sometimes you’re just so pathetically insecure, that all the spiritual disciplines and QTs in the world, all the naming and claiming and sin-confessing and Word-diving, wouldn’t be enough to stay the hand of it. Maybe there was a hitch in my step, but I never could quite “Own the Lord’s Promises” enough not to do the things I knew I shouldn’t. I could memorize verses—and the verses were life-giving—but doing so didn’t keep me from being just like everybody else. Often, my memory verses became benchmarks of their own, another notch in some invisible ledger.

This is the bifurcated identity that push so many away entirely: the “fruits” you learn to practice and pronounce become a way of distinguishing the old from the new, but what stings are the various daily reminders of what you cannot and could not overcome—a lasting depression, a weight problem, a difficult family trauma. They are both there, frustratingly unrectified, as two persons: the one praying for more victories, more change, and the one you’ve always been.

Stuck there, not able or allowed to come to terms with a life of contradictions, the disappointment tends instead to bear the first fruits of a reactionary.

“Reality as a Threat to High Expectations”

In my second year of teaching, a fifth-grader named Marvin in my class found out his father had been brutally stabbed to death. It happened after school had let out, so I found out early the next morning in the cafeteria. Not five minutes later, he walked into my classroom and, having first thought I would have a very difficult phone call to make in the afternoon, now he was here, sitting down for his “Do Now.” Except for the funeral itself, he didn’t miss a minute of school that week—but that, of course, didn’t mean he was really “there.” He kept putting his head down and falling asleep in class; a couple times he tried to start fights with other kids. I was supposed to treat him as I always did, but after the first correction, I couldn’t really bring myself to chastise him for putting his head down.

The DCA (Diversity, Community and Achievement) Training at Summer Institute doesn’t really prepare you to deal with a kid whose dad just died. What could? What they do teach you is the merits of keeping up your expectations for kids who are under the wheel. The DCA Toolkit provides all sorts of ways for teachers to talk to administrators, to parents, to students, about how—without excuse—they must maintain the highest expectations in their classroom. They tell you “Reality Is a Threat to High Expectations.” Damn right it is.

There is also something called “Kind-Hearted Prejudice” which must be avoided at all costs. Kind-Hearted Prejudice is the tendency, out of sympathy with a child’s experience or home life or academic history, to pre-judge the child as incapable of handling the challenge. TFA’s DCA Workbook says this:

Recognize that problems that are outside your control do not necessarily mean a lack of achievement-related solutions…Maintain your convictions about the value of academic achievement despite your (possible) unfamiliarity with students’ lives and lifestyles.

 I certainly did not have familiarity with this situation, and I certainly did not have any insights into Marvin’s “Cultural Learning Styles” when it came to a father’s homicide. But there seemed to me something foolishly un-kind in prancing on about my expectations for him and his achievement in my class. My class didn’t mean anything to him right then, and the kid may not have known it, but he was doing exactly what he needed to be doing, and probably all he could have been doing. This moment showed me two things: first, that the solutions I was hired to provide were completely incompatible to the solution needed at that moment and, second, that the solution needed there had to do with what I had thought teaching was going to be about.

Maybe this means I was a bad candidate for TFA all along. Maybe so. It certainly became apparent that, as my time in the classroom went on, I saw their metrics for “achievement” to have been far too shallow to deal with such things. What is achievement at the expense of a wasted, mournful afternoon? What is achievement but a classroom learning to recognize and empathize with a kid in the depths of tragedy? But there’s no Big Idea substandard there, no rubricked qualifiers to align our responses to. Perhaps it’s better that way—mercy defies being relegated to the corner of an End-of-Year Growth Chart (Standard M-3: Mercy, Beginning Proficiency), and it never will lend dependable data. But it made the teaching of children a handmaiden to the metric.

To be clear, I don’t think Teach For America means to be this way. On the whole, they have the most inspiring and experienced teachers in America as their gurus, ones who don’t just excel in state assessments but in more holistic terms, too. They’ve always wanted to be “transformational,” and never just in the numbers sense. Where they’ve gone wrong is in their analysis of these exemplars.

Teach For America has functioned on the basis that a “teacher effecting change” can be categorized into and defined by components, and that those valuable components are reproducible and measurable. This kind of proficiency, though, doesn’t necessarily make you a surefire award-winner. In fact, there’s a certain panache, a “way of the heart” that numbers can’t quite render. It has kept some “exemplar” teachers from scoring as well as they should, and made less suitable teachers fare better than expected. It reminds me how CMs often use a vague axiom like the “J-Factor” (Joy Factor) to describe the kind of uncategorizable love that transfers from a good teacher to a student. The J-Factor is a way of saying, “We don’t know what it is, but we know it needs to be there.”

But I also don’t think this method of training works anyway. Let’s try an example: A struggling school is trying to figure out how to replicate their veteran teacher’s outstanding classroom in all the others in the school. Let’s say this teacher’s name is Ms. Applegate. One feasible starting point is to do this little thing Applegate does at the end of each class: she gives students a little mini-quiz at the end of the lesson, just to see where things are. This little CFU (Check For Understanding) she calls an “Exit Slip.” Soon it is passed down the ranks, from the Math Department and English Department to everybody else. They say that this is how an effective teacher judges their lesson—by way of their Exit Slip—a chance for you to gauge where your students are.

Once implemented, something starts to change, though not in the expected way. Every teacher is now putting Exit Slips into their daily lesson—and some teachers are showing some really great scores on them. But every teacher is also a little less focused on the teaching and a bit more focused on integrating those measures into the box.

This is where good intentions spin out and the red tape begins. It’s not that this way of CFU is a bad thing—it’s a very good thing, a “Best Practice” from a veteran. It is only negative in what it does in the other teachers’ heads. Suddenly, their classroom success is synonymous with a measure that only an Exit Slip can show. And because any professional desires success, and wants to keep their job, they begin teaching their lesson with their Exit Slip in mind. It’s not rocket science to see how, in not too many steps ahead, teachers suddenly feel the personality of their classroom eroding, and feel that Best Practices have somehow taken the joy out of teaching; that students have become less and less intrigued by questions and discoveries, and more and more conditioned by Exit Slip stickers and Objective Mastery.

Of course this isn’t just TFA’s ugly phenomenon. This is the state of the union, a perverse wiring, that we always tend to choose an idea of “success” over plain wonder. There’s no payoff to wonder. There’s no way to replicate a model of wonder, no way to position it in a profitable way, no Wonder Toolkit. But people—and schools—and most often, movements—are wired towards cost-benefit analysis, and need things like Toolkits, because a Toolkit provides the illusion of permanent and repeatable control. We will always want a law that will keep life moving in a statistically dependable motion.

“Christian Living” certainly falls prey to the same kind of phenomenon. Of course these Christian things—Quiet Times, Scripture reading, abstinence of all kinds, giving to the needy—are good things. I certainly wish I did them more! “Your Law is perfect,” the psalmist says (Ps 19.7). In hearing how important these Christian Living principles are, though, our wiring tends to exploit them as the identifying nameplates in our judicial world of “Living for Him.” We feel the hot pride of success when we abstain; we feel the hot malice of self-justification when someone abstains better. It is no surprise that, culturally speaking, the markers of Christian Living symbolize to the outside some of the most heinously un-Christian spiritual motives. And all the while, Jesus Christ hangs there on the Cross, the Good Friend waiting for us still, reminding us of that thing he said once: “The Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”

I had an odd revelation standing there in my classroom, that Marvin was the Victor I had imagined during Institute, and there was no gauge for achievement in that scenario that could help him. I could not have controlled what he needed to learn at that moment; I could not have backwards planned for an emotive E-6 strand lesson on family death. I could only stand there and let him sleep, and wonder at the penalty for this Kind-Hearted Prejudice.


Too Invisible to Be Called a Movement

Where is the blessedness I knew

When first I saw the Lord?

Where is the soul-refreshing view

Of Jesus, and His word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!

How sweet their mem’ry still!

But they have left an aching void,

The world can never fill. – William Cowper

After two years, my post was up, and I packed up the things I had brought down, plus a few New Orleans mementos, and left again for home. As much as I had wanted to make this new city and post mine, it never really was, and that bothered me. I felt like I was leaving in honorable discharge: an excusable termination. I no longer believed in what I was doing, but I also didn’t believe in any alternative strategy.

Which leaves questions: You mock Backwards Planning and Relentless Pursuit—what are your ideas? You say the acronyms and mantras create a dishonest picture of what the teaching life is actually like—well, teachers are always going to have to stand at copy machines, and they’re always going to have to learn how to instruct effectively. That’s not lingo, that’s a fact. Sure, it’s great if a teacher loves their job, but you need teachers to be good teachers, not just lovey, huggy teletubbies. And, besides, how else do you teach someone—and not just someone, but an entire fleet of educators—how to do their job without giving them exemplars, targets, and measureable goals? How else do you leave the inspirational mountaintop with something to actually do?

Well, I don’t know all the answers to those questions, and the thoughts I do have aren’t very movement-friendly. I suppose it is difficult for a movement to speak so bluntly, but I think you tell your fleet they are going to get their asses kicked. You tell them it is right to believe that “Reality Is a Threat to High Expectations,” and so you turn towards reality, rather than the expectations. That doesn’t mean you leave the mountain uninspired, it just means you come down in full recognition of what you’re about to face. And you allow your “Chosen Ones” to flop mercilessly, to make crucial errors, to make zero progress—while at the same time perhaps giving them the opportunity to fall in love with their job. Not the achievement-speak, not the alignment of state standards, not the WIDWATW, but the slow, grueling work of teaching a child. This kind of surrender to failure, though, is too patient and too mysterious and too invisible to ever be called a movement.

The same goes for Christianity, for that matter.

In my last week in New Orleans, I had my Final Debrief with my PD. She had me over to her house, a wide double-shotgun with a fire pit in the back yard. We sat back there, and she gave me a beer, and I asked her if it was okay if I had a cigarette. She filled me in that she, too, was leaving Teach For America this year, and sighed. She then opened up her laptop, spreadsheet alit, and asked me about “my gains” for the year. I had two different rubrics to be evaluated on: the Louisiana assessments rubric, and my students’ reading level growth. We looked at the highest one and came to the conclusion that that year I had made “solid gains.” Not “significant gains,” but “solid gains.” She then pulled up another document, and began typing as I gave my answers. She asked me what I would say in the future about TFA, for interested applicants.

“I’d tell them they should do it, though probably not for the reason TFA would want me to say it.”

She knew what I meant. “Because we could all use a kick in the teeth? I won’t write that down.” And then she asked me for a cigarette. She asked if I’d ever teach again, and that I didn’t even have to think about. The vision for transformation, for what it could be, was still there.

“Probably so.”

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2 responses to “From the Magazine: The Hidden Spirituality of Teach For America”

  1. Great piece. One of my favorites from Vol. 1.

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